March 08, 2006

The Destroyers (perhaps)

Joe Cathy has a recent post in which he posits that word Nephilim that appears in Genesis 6:4 and Numbers 13:33 should be understood as "The Fallen Ones." He is responding to a post by Claude Mariottini. Joe takes up the first of two suggestions offered by Mariottini. He, Joe, suggests that the word is derived from the common Hebrew root npl, with the meaning “fallen ones.” The other suggestion supported by some scholars is that the word is from Hebrew nephel, which means “miscarriage." Mariottini prefers to leave the word untranslated but worries that this causes problems for the lay interpreter.

The more or less default interpretation of Nephilim is "Giants" (LXX εί γίγαωτες).

I would like to proffer another suggestion. Nephilim doesn't have a Hebrew equivalent at all but is from an Akkadian word. I agree with Joe that it is based on the Semitic root npl which in Hebrew, Aramaic and Ugaritic means "to fall." But in Akkadian the root is seen in the verb napalu(m) which, even in the G-stem, means to "hack down" or "destroy (see AHw, 733)." In some contexts, it means "to destroy cities." In my view, the meaning "Destroyers" fits well in the context of Genesis 6:4. I quote from the NRSV with a minor change (in italics),

The Nephilim were on the earth in those days - and also afterward - when the sons of God went into the daughters of humans, who bore children to them. These were the heroes that were of old, men of renown.

In the last sentence the phrase, "heroes that were of old, men of renown (הַגִּבֹּרִים אֲשֶׁר מֵעוֹלָם, אַנְשֵׁי הַשֵּׁם)" seems to me to strongly imply a military order. In fact, the word I translated as "men" (following a literal meaning) is translated "warriors" in the NRSV. The hard question in this passage is, does this last clause relate to the Nephilim or to the offspring of the sons of God and the daughters of humans? If the former is the case, my suggested is supported. Those who destroy walled cities must surely have been "heroes that were of old, men of renown." If the latter, my suggestion is unaffected. I think the best way to understand the whole passage is to take the clause "when the sons of God went into the daughters of humans, who bore children to them" as defining the mythical time in which the (first) Nephilim were on the earth. That is when the "the heroes that were of old, men of renown" were on the earth. But I admit it is not very clear from context. The Nephilim that are seen in the land that "devours its inhabitants" in Numbers 13:33 could also be understood as "destroyers" who tear down cities.

If my suggestion turns out to be correct, it is possible that those who incorporated the Nephilim material into the Hebrew text may not have known what Nephilim meant and took it as a collective name for some class of strange folks. If that is the case, it may be best not to try to translate it.

Before I go on to what may be the most irrelevant point of all in this post, I want to make it clear that this is just an untested suggestion. It is not necessarily an original suggestion and not necessarily a suggestion in which I have much stock. I have not reviewed the secondary literature or consulted the Akkadian passages that may or may not support this understanding of the Akkadian verb. Nor have I made any real effort to explain how or when it may have come into the Hebrew Bible. I may do these things at a later date and then again, I may not.

Now for what is the most irrelevant point in this post. There is an Egyptian word nfrw that means "soldiers" The reason that this may be irrelevant is that the Egyptain word on which it is based, nfr, means "beautiful" or "good." And nfrw may best be understood as "beautiful young men of the army." For both phonetic and etymological reasons it is unlikely that this Egyptian word has anything to do with the Nephilim of the Hebrew Bible but for a while I worried about it, so I thought it was worth sharing.

Posted by DuaneSmith at March 8, 2006 09:17 AM | Read more on Hebrew Bible |

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I like this idea of the Nephilim being understood as the destroyers. I had not thought of the Akkadian cognate. I will do some primary research in the CAD and other relevant literature. You really may be onto something here.

Posted by: Joe Cathey at March 8, 2006 11:50 AM

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